A heart attack, a stroke, a diagnosis of coronary artery disease — these are terrifying events. And then, at this moment of maximum stress, when you may be facing the idea of your own mortality for the very first time, your health care team orders you to…relax! Is that a joke? Isn’t relaxing for healthy people?
But the fact is, highly stressed people with coronary artery disease have a high risk of future heart attack or stroke, according to Michael McKee, PhD, of the Psychiatry and Psychology Department of the Cleveland Clinic. If you want to stay out of the emergency room — and if you want to heal — you have to recognize that stress may have contributed to your illness, and you have to find healthier ways of responding to it.
New Ways of Thinking
Emotional stress puts physical stress on your heart by raising blood pressure, promoting inflammation and increasing your heart rate. Life’s pressures — money worries, job frustrations, relationship woes, family strains —can also lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as overeating, heavy drinking or smoking.
The next time you start to feel stressed, pay attention to your body. Is your heart beginning to race? Is your breathing quickening? Acknowledge it’s happening and then address it: Close your eyes, slowly breath in and out, and let your thoughts go. Don’t fight against thinking — when a thought arises, let it in, but don’t dwell. Say to yourself, “I’m thinking.” This can help you refocus.
If you’ve been diagnosed with heart disease and you’ve relied on these behaviors to get through problems before, you may feel caught in a vicious cycle: “How can I kick unhealthy habits if they’re the very things that help me through stressful times?” You may also feel that all the advice to eat well and exercise is just another pressure — and you may respond the same way you did before your diagnosis: “I just don’t have the time.”
“It all starts with attitude,” Dr. McKee says. “If you always think the way you’ve always thought, you’re always going to do what you’ve always done.” The key, he advises, is to create new ways of thinking that are healthier for you. That begins with putting your health at the top of your priority list — not shrugging it off as something you’ll get around to dealing with eventually. “You need to concede that it’s important to take time to take care of yourself, and that doing so is what’s going to allow you to succeed for the rest of your life,” Dr. McKee says.
Tune In to Your Body
One of the first steps in managing stress is learning how your body deals with it. One method: biofeedback (typically done in a health practitioner’s office), which uses a machine to measure your body’s responses (heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature) to various triggers. Learning how to bring your body to a proper “resting state” is the key.